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Robbie Lawler: Career Resurgence Defined

(Lawler vs. Koscheck, photo: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler made his UFC debut as a welterweight at the age of 20 on May 10th, 2002 in a unanimous decision victory over Aaron Riley. Nearly twelve years later and at the age of 31, Lawler will now get his first crack at UFC gold.

As one can assume, the road to Lawler’s title shot has been one full of twists, turns, ups, and downs.

After staring his UFC career with 4 wins in 5 fights, Lawler went on a two fight losing streak in 2004 which led to his release from the promotion. From that moment, Lawler has gone through a plethora of phases in his career, culminating in his triumphant return to the UFC.

Success in Regional Promotions, PRIDE, & IFL (2005-2007)

Photo via UFC.tv
Photo via UFC.tv

After Lawler’s release from the UFC, he went on to fight for multiple promotions, including Superbrawl, King of the Cage, Icon Sport, PRIDE FC, and the IFL. Lawler’s first three fights post-UFC were highly successful as he sandwiched a submission win over Jeremy Brown between two knockouts of UFC veteran Falaniko Vitale.

Next up on Lawler’s fight schedule was a date with fellow MMA veteran Jason ‘Mayhem’ Miller. Miller was nearly knocked out by Lawler in the second round of the fight, but was able to recover and submit Lawler with an arm triangle in the third round. The fight signaled a significant weakness in Lawler’s game: his inability to pace himself and avoid punching himself out.

Just over a month later, Lawler returned to action at PRIDE 32 where he brutally knocked out Joey Villaseñor 22 seconds into the first round with a flying knee. The win was a return to form for Lawler who was looking to get ride of the bad taste in his mouth leftover by the loss to Miller.

Lawler continued to have success in the multiple promotions he was fighting for. After the Villaseñor knockout, Lawler knocked out Eduardo Pamplona in February of 2007 at IFL: Atlanta and then went on to knockout UFC veteran Frank  Trigg to win the Icon Sport Middleweight Championship.

After accumulating a 7-1 record in multiple promotions, Lawler was perfectly set for a return to greatness on the big stage.

Championship Gold: The EliteXC Year (2007-2008)

Photo via ProMMANow.com
Photo via ProMMANow.com

Lawler was eventually stripped of his Icon Sport Middleweight Championship after pulling out of a scheduled fight with Kala Hose. The move left Lawler available to sign with the fast rising promotion EliteXC. EliteXC was quickly rising up the ranks as an MMA promotion and was a great option for fighters outside the UFC to fight on a televised card (EliteXC was aired on Showtime prior to airing cards on CBS).

Lawler made his EliteXC debut  in September of 2008 with a spectacular knockout out of PRIDE FC veteran Murilo ‘Ninja’ Rua to win the EliteXC Middleweight Championship. The win pushed Lawler’s knockout streak to four straight fights.

Lawler was then matched up against UFC veteran Scott Smith for his first defense of his newly gained championship. After dominating the first two rounds, Lawler inadvertently poked Smith in the eye which caused the bout to be stopped and ruled a no contest. Smith and Lawler rematched just two months later in July of 2008 with Lawler retaining his title via a second round TKO. This would be Lawler’s last fight for EliteXC.

In October of 2008, Pro Elite, the parent company of EliteXC, announced that they would have to cease operations after allegations of fight fixing were brought to the company due to comments made by Seth Petruzeli after his knockout win over the promotion’s biggest draw Kimbo Slice.

The loss of EliteXC left Lawler without a home, but his contract was quickly picked up by a fast growing MMA promotion from San Jose, California.

A Career Downfall: The StrikeForce Years (2009-2012)

Photo via sports.sho.com
Photo via sports.sho.com

Lawler’s contract was picked up by StrikeForce, a small kickboxing promotion which had turned its sights to MMA and become a formidable force in the MMA world.

‘Ruthless’ made his StrikeForce debut in June of 2009 opposite Jake Shields in a 182 pound catchweight bout. Shields was in very much the same boat as Lawler at the time of the fight. Both men were highly touted, but were unable to find their way into (or back into for Lawler) the UFC for one reason or another.

The fight itself was a disaster for Lawler. Shields was unable to take Lawler down in the bout, but a Lawler initiated clinch led to Shields jumping on a guillotine and submitting Lawler just 2 minutes and 2 seconds into the first round. The loss showed a relative lack of fight IQ by Lawler. He had no reason to clinch with Shields and cost himself the fight.

Lawler returned to action in January of 2010 against vaunted striker Melvin Manhoef. Lawler had no success during the first part of round one and had his leg battered by thunderous leg kicks from Manhoef. Manhoef nearly knocked out Lawler, but left himself open for a counter right hand that put him out cold. The win was amuch-needed for Lawler, but he looked hesitant and sluggish on the feet.

The next six fights for Lawler led to many questioning if he should possible hang up his gloves for good. Lawler faced off with former UFC light-heavyweight title challenger Renato ‘Babalu’ Sobral in June of 2010. Lawler was outclassed for much of the fight and dropped a unanimous decision.

Lawler dropped back down to middleweight for his next bout against long time veteran Matt Lindland. Lawler knocked out Lindland in just fifty seconds. The finish was impressive for Lawler but Lindland looked like he was in no shape to still be competing at a high professional level.

Lawler then lost 3 of his next 4 bouts to the likes of Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, Tim Kennedy, and Lorenz Larkin. Lawler’s only victory in that span was over Aldan Amagov in January of 2012. The Lawler that was on display during this stretch was nothing like the Lawler that burst onto the scene in the UFC. He looked slow, patient, and flat-out uninterested in fighting at the time.

Lawler’s last fight in StrikeForce was the aforementioned loss to Larkin. Larkin was able to batter Lawler in the stand-up for the duration of the fight. To be quite honest, Lawler looked like an amateur compared to Larkin. During Lawler’s losing streak, StrikeForce was purchased by the UFC’s parent company Zuffa, LLC and eventually selected talent was absorbed into the promotion.

One of the names very few thought would make the transfer over to the UFC was Lawler’s, as he was on a significant losing streak and had a very expensive contract. The UFC ended up shocking the world and announced that Lawler would be one of the fighters to be transferred over to the UFC.

For Lawler, this was it. It was his last chance to fulfill a career that started with so much promise.

A Resurgence Defined: The UFC Return (2013-Present)

Robbie Lawler (top) punches Rory MacDonald. Photo by Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Robbie Lawler (top) punches Rory MacDonald. Photo by Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

One of the conditions of Lawler’s return to the UFC was that he drop back down to the welterweight division, where he started with the promotion nearly eleven years before. Lawler accepted and was booked opposite former UFC Welterweight Title Challenger and great MMA wrestler Josh Koscheck. When the bout was announced many MMA fans and pundits thought it would be a walk in the park for Koscheck. Lawler had just been handily defeated by Larkin who was considered a step down in comparison to Koscheck. Plus, one of Lawler’s weaknesses throughout his career was strong wrestlers. All in all, it was a nightmare match-up for Lawler.

On February 23, 2013, Lawler shocked the world and destroyed Koscheck inside the first round. It was an eye-opening performance for many who were unfamiliar with Lawler’s previous triumphs. After being taken down at the start of the bout, Lawler was able to work his way back to his feet, level Koscheck with a knee, and blast his foe with a few left hands to seal the deal.

Lawler had finally returned to the UFC and left quite the impression on a totally new MMA fan base from when he first competed for the promotion.

Lawler was then scheduled to face a handful of opponents in July of 2013, but eventually landed a bout with fellow StrikeForce import Bobby Voelker. Voelker had no answer for Lawler’s offense and found himself on the receiving end of a highlight reel head kick knockout in the second round.

Lawler’s next scheduled bout was one that could put him directly into title contention. The now 32-year-old Lawler was matched with top UFC welterweight Rory MacDonald. Coming into the fight, much of the attention focused on MacDonald and his willingness to fight his teammate Georges St-Pierre should he defeat Lawler.

Fortunately for MacDonald, he never had to come face to face with his training partner in the UFC as Lawler pulled off the biggest win of his career and defeated the highly touted MacDonald via decision. After a tentative first round and second round that was likely scored in favor of MacDonald, Lawler came out in the third round with a vengeance and nearly knocked-out MacDonald multiple times.

A Career Full Circle: UFC Title Shot (March 15, 2013)

Johny Hendricks (left) and Robbie Lawler (right) will square off for the vacant UFC Welterweight Title at UFC 171. Photo via UFC.com
Johny Hendricks (left) and Robbie Lawler (right) will square off for the vacant UFC Welterweight Title at UFC 171. Photo via UFC.com

The win put Lawler in the hunt for a UFC title, something that nobody could have predicted. The guy who got whooped by Lorenz Larkin and Babalu in StrikeForce is now one of the best welterweights in the world. Who would’ve thunk it?

The Lawler/MacDonald fight took place at UFC 167 which was headlined by a welterweight title bout between Georges St. Pierre and Johny Hendricks. St. Pierre retained his title via controversial split decision. After the bout St. Pierre announced that he would be vacating his title and taking an indefinite leave from MMA.

St. Pierre’s indefinite leave left the UFC with the need for a new welterweight champion. The obvious choice to be one half of the bout was Hendricks, who many thought had defeated St.Pierre for the title. His opponent was a bit harder to come by. Hendricks already had defeated perennial number two welterweight Carlos Condit and very few challengers after that.

The UFC then made the obvious choice: booking Hendricks to face off with Lawler to declare the new UFC welterweight champion.

After the announcement was made, it became clear that Lawler’s career had come full circle. It only took him twelve years, but ‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler is finally fighting for a UFC title.

Will Lawler be able to compete one of the biggest comebacks in the history of all sports?

We will find out this Saturday night.

UFC 171 goes down this Saturday night and is headlined by a Vacant Welterweight Title Fight between Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler. Also on the card are  two welterweight bouts that could crown the next challenger for the winner between Hendricks and Lawler. Carlos Condit will meet Tyron Woodley in the night’s co-main event and former StrikeForce Champion Jake Shields will square off with former Bellator Champion Hector Lombard.


For all of your UFC 171 coverage, visit SciFighting.com.